Fifty miles across the Pearl River estuary from Hong Kong lies the ancient city of Macao. First settled by the Portuguese in the 1550s, it will be handed back to China on December 20, 1999. This small European enclave on the South China Sea played a small and long forgotten role in U.S. history; on July 3, 1844, the first Chinese-American treaty, known as the Treaty of Wang Xia, was negotiated and signed here. Two and a half years ago, the Chinese made much of the fact that their recuperation of sovereignty over Hong Kong marked the final abrogation of the 1842 Chinese-British Treaty of Nanjing, whereby China had ceded Hong Kong to Queen Victoria "in perpetuity" and was forced to pay $12 million for having "obliged" the British to wage war on them, as well as compensation to the tune of an additional $6 million for the cost of the opium seized from British merchants and destroyed by the Chinese authorities--the original casus belli of the "Opium War."
In contrast, the Treaty of Wang Xia was not punitive; and the United States--with its own anticolonial past strongly in mind--acquired the same "most favored nation" status in China that the British enjoyed, not by force of arms but by convincing the Chinese that it sought no unfair advantage and, above all, did not seek territory.
In July 1844, Caleb Cushing, a congressman from Massachusetts and a forceful advocate for the China trade merchants of his state, and the Imperial commissioner Qiying met at the old Temple of Kun Iam, which today faces onto a busy avenue toward the center of the small peninsula on which Macao stands. At that time, the temple lay within the Chinese village of Wang Xia, just outside the seventeenth-century walls of Macao city but well inside the territory controlled by the Portuguese. Kun Iam, as she is known in Macao, is the Buddhist Kwan Yin, Goddess of Mercy and Queen of Heaven. The image of the goddess, dressed in the robes of a Chinese bride, is set above the altar table in the smoky inner third chamber of the temple, where, on a side wall, a long glass case contains the gold lacquer figures of 18 Chinese wise men, including Marco Polo--whose statuette has bulging round eyes, a largish nose, and a small curly beard intended to denote his European origin. Beyond the temple's maze of shrines, lies a garden with a round stone table, four simple granite stools, and a plaque written in Chinese that mark the spot where the treaty of "peace, amity, and commerce" was signed by Caleb Cushing and Qiying.
The Treaty of Wang Xia gave American cargo ships access to the five Chinese treaty ports, only recently forced open to foreigners as a result of the Opium War, and it also gave Americans the right to construct hospitals, churches, and cemeteries in China, a privilege the missionaries who served as Caleb Cushing's translators in Macao were especially anxious to obtain. The Imperial commissioner Qiying had been China's representative at the acrimonious Nanjing negotiations, and his large entourage of soldiers, servants, officials, and advisors was lodged at the Temple of Kun Iam during the negotiations with Cushing.
The Treaty of Wang Xia, which governed the American relationship with China until 1905, committed the United States and China "to a perfect reciprocity" and was concluded with the utmost cordiality in less than two weeks. As Qiying wrote to Cushing when inviting him to take "fruit and tea" at the temple of Kun Iam: "This conduct is vastly different from that of the English taking and keeping possession of Hong Kong...." 
The British officials based in Hong Kong had implied that the Chinese could not be trusted to police their own agreement since it was insinuated in London that they had signed one document with the British, but then published a different version for the use of their own customs officials. Cushing thought it "a harsh construction to suspect the Chinese of such an act." The problem, he thought, had more to do with the "want of care on the part of the English translators." Daniel Webster, the U.S. secretary of state, had given Cushing careful instructions: "You are a messenger of peace, sent by the greatest power of America to the greatest empire in Asia to offer respect and good will and to establish the means of friendly intercourse." It is a pity that no senior U.S. public official in recent decades has taken the short helicopter flight to Macao across the Pearl River estuary from Hong Kong and stopped by at the Kun Iam Temple. It would do no harm at all to think back to the Treaty of Wang Xia once in a while, or to the good will the United States could once count on, in its less bellicose days.
The Midas Tale
The territory of Macao today consists of a tiny, densely populated peninsula of just over two square miles and two islands: Taipa, of 2.2 square miles, and Coloane, of three square miles. Its population is about 430,000, of which 97 percent are Chinese. Lisbon had wanted the transfer of Macao to China to take place in 2007 and mark the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of their settlement on the south China coast, but the Chinese wished to have the matter settled before the end of the millennium.  The British mandarins of Whitehall, who could not come to terms with the fact that the Portuguese flag will fly over Macao longer than the Union Jack flew over Hong Kong, and smarting from accusations that they blundered in their reading of Chinese intentions and "lost" Hong Kong prematurely, were quick to claim that the Portuguese had sold out to the Chinese long ago.  Sir Percy Craddock, former British ambassador to Beijing and advisor to Margaret Thatcher on China policy while she was prime minister, called Portuguese authority in Macao "a ghostly sham." The Portugues in Macao, however, have been long used to such snootiness from the British who often forget that they arrived in China as drug dealers, not democrats. The British inhabitants of Hong Kong in the 1850s called Macao an unrecognized and unpermitted, but unchallenged squatting, on an undefined portion of Chinese territory."
In many ways, of course, they were right. Lisbon was always very far away and the Chinese very close at hand. Yet Macao had been most convenient to the British for the century before their own forceful annexation of Hong Kong. Prior to that date, the Chinese denied foreign merchants the right to remain year round at the great trading city of Guangzhou (Canton), and Macao was absolutely essential to British merchants, or to any other European or American merchants for that matter, if they wanted an entrepot from which to sell Indian opium and purchase Chinese tea. The ambiguity of Macao's status suited all parties.
The Portuguese arrived in the Pearl River estuary as early as 1513, although Macao itself was not settled by them until 1557. The initiative for its founding came from the merchants of Malacca, seized by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1511, giving the Portuguese a stronghold on the critical sea passage between the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Initially, Macao's prosperity rested on its strategic location on the trade route from Goa through Malacca to Japan. No less important was access to Guangzhou, the great outlet for South China silk, porcelain, and lacquer ware, a three-to-five-day voyage some 80 miles up the Pearl River from Macao.
Climatic conditions were also important for Macao. As the Northern Hemisphere tilts on its axis toward the sun in the early spring, the Asia landmass warms and the rising heated air creates a low-pressure zone, drawing the cooler, denser air from the ocean, creating the southern monsoon, which blows up the Indian Ocean and eastward and northward along the China coast. In the autumn the process is reversed. For centuries, seaborne traders took advantage of the monsoons, moving north and east to arrive off the southern coast of China in the spring and summer, and departing for South and Southeast Asia in the winter. The Canton fairs of January and June were held to coincide with the monsoons.
The Portuguese, who saw Macao always from the seaward end of the peninsula, named it after the seaward-facing temple of A Ma. The Chinese, looking out to the peninsula from the mainland, named the narrow sand spit and the hills of the peninsula beyond after the stem and bud of a lotus flower. The Chinese found the Portuguese both peculiar and fearsome. "They are white and black," one Chinese observer noted. "The faces are pink, and their hair is all white. Even the young appear as white as snow." The Chinese were impressed by the European's "beaklike noses, deep-set green eyes, piercing and unblinking like a cat's." The African slaves the Portuguese brought with them the Chinese claimed were "generally similar to humans." The Chinese believed that the Portuguese were cannibals, kidnapped children, and were quickly roused to anger and violence, at which time they ceased to be human and became wild animals.  The Chinese also had a healthy respect for Portuguese firepower and fighting ability, and wanted to confine them to a remote place where they could be observed, monitored, and, if need be, learned from. The technological wonders and curiosities to be observed in Macao especially intrigued the Chinese. One Chinese observer found a "particularly obscene device," the inflatable naked woman made of leather and silk some Portuguese travelers carried with them in a case to be taken to bed when needed.
Chinese dislike and suspicion of Westerners remained strong throughout the Ming period and beyond. The Italian-born Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who had entered China in 1582, writing to the general of the Jesuit order Claudio Acquaviva, noted that those wishing to speak ill of their adversaries say, "He's a man who makes a habit of going to Macao."  To keep out such influences, in 1573 the Chinese district magistrate ordered the construction of a barrier gate surmounted by a small gatehouse at the...